I grew up in a 1960s suburb. Our house was built at the beginning of the decade, a few years before I was born. It was in one of a group of roads with Scottish male forenames: Alistair Drive, Malcolm Crescent, Bruce Crescent, Angus Road. Slightly farther afield came the famous golf courses: Birkdale Avenue, Ainsdale Close, Fairhaven Drive, Sunningdale Drive, Wentworth Drive, Troon Close.
My mum, who was brought up less than a mile from where we lived, could remember the area when it was all fields. She’d reminisce about how she and her brother used to go dipping for sticklebacks in a pond just across the road from our house. For many years, the house built on top of the pond had a major damp problem.
Beyond the golf courses were even newer roads, named after locations in the Lake District: Bowness Avenue, Coniston Avenue, Keswick Avenue. My friend Ian lived in Keswick Avenue, which was still under construction when we were kids. Honouring family tradition, Ian and I used to go dipping for sticklebacks—and angling for illusive carp—in a couple of ponds just beyond where the new houses gave out. I’d meet Ian at his house, and we’d walk to the ponds through the wood at the back of Keswick Avenue. We didn’t know whether the wood had a name—and I still don’t—but we called it Keswick Woods.
Keswick Woods nestled in the steep valley of the grandly named River Dibbin: a stream you could jump across, if you could find a suitable launch site. You needed to cross the stream to get to the ponds. When we weren’t off fishing, Ian and I and other friends would spend hours in Keswick Woods. To be honest, I can’t remember what we did there. Tree climbing was occasionally involved, but we generally just mucked about. I remember Ian and me digging up sherds of blue and white Victorian pottery by the side of a rainwater drainage outlet once: my first (and thus far penultimate) archaeological field trip.
In these paranoid times, young kids would no doubt be warned against playing in the woods. Mum just asked me to watch out for ‘bad men’, and told me to hide if ever I heard any approaching. I remember hiding behind a log with Ian and some other boy once as a group of people we’d decided must be bad men passed noisily down a path a few feet below us. They were probably just teenagers. I was bitterly disappointed none of them mentioned any ‘buried loot’, being deeply into Famous Five books at the time.
Mum died five years ago, but my dad still lives in the same house they bought together over half a century ago. I visit him most weeks, driving past the end of Keswick Woods en route.
Last week, after a gap of 40 years, I decided to pay a visit to the woods, to see what memories returned. If you’ve stayed with me this far, you’ve already read them.
The woods were far more overgrown than I remembered. So overgrown that I struggled to find my way in at first. I entered from the far end near the ponds, aiming to walk through the woods towards Keswick Avenue.
Despite the blazing June sunshine, the woods were oppressively dark in places. The River Dibbin was little more than a muddy ditch after the recent dry spell. There were fewer stinging nettles than I remembered, but more undergrowth. I heard blackbirds and chiffchaffs. I recognised dock leaves and campion. But I saw not a single other person in Keswick Woods, adult or child. I kind of hoped there were children in there somewhere, hiding as instructed from the bad man, but I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be.
Eventually, the path climbed to a house at the edge of the woods. A man was mowing his lawn. We got chatting. I said I’d last been in this wood 40 years ago. He said he’d moved into his house just after it was built, 41 years ago. I probably saw it being built. I explained that I was aiming for Keswick Avenue, but the man informed me the woods were now private property beyond his house, having been incorporated into his neighbours’ back gardens.
I’d always assumed—or at least liked to think—that Keswick Woods were still going strong, unchanged from how I remembered them. But they’re not really there any more. Not the woods I knew. Ian’s and my route to the ponds has, it turns out, been gone for over four decades.
I thought of mum, and the lost fields of her childhood, and found myself mourning the woods of my own.
“…wonderfully droll, witty and entertaining… At their best Carter’s moorland walks and his meandering intellectual talk are part of a single, deeply coherent enterprise: a restless inquiry into the meaning of place and the nature of self.”
—Mark Cocker, author and naturalist
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